Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Historical Fantasy, and Fantastical History: The Stakes of a Legible History

            Thus far, we’ve had a series of discussions that focused on the construction of the Fairy World, and how that world is made an immersive experience. This past class, we came across the first serious question that Fairy Worlds may make on the Primary Reality as we know it: how Tolkien conceptualized the relationship between the Fairy World and history. We have seen multiple examples of Tolkien and his characters discussing it. In Letter 183, “I am historically minded. Middle-Earth is not an imaginary world”[1]. Again, in letter 131, as a note about the creative process: “it proved to be the discovery of the completion of the whole, its mode of descent to Earth, and merging into ‘history’”[2]. In the Notion Club Papers, “Sometimes, I have a queer feeling that, if one could go back, one would not find myth dissolving into history, but rather the opposite: real history becoming mythical”[3]. To accept this claim opens a whole series of problems that revolve around a central point: how can we trust history, and use historical claims in a variety of contexts if we cannot be sure it actually occurred?
            This, on some level, feels like the most radical of postmodernist positions on historical knowledge. Regardless of when history occurs, we may never have absolute knowledge of how and why it occurred. Both these absences create political vacuums in which history can be used to legitimize a variety of narratives. History never operates purely as an apolitical force—it comprises a form of ideology that maintains a sense of power within individuals and societies. As Constantin Fasolt noted, “It is a weapon that was invented on a battlefield, a dangerous form of knowledge that can do harm to both its subjects and its practitioners”[4].
            How this harm manifests itself is less in the operation of the events themselves (the historicity of the events, we might say) and more how these events are structured in narrative. There is a perfect example of this process within Farmer Giles. Within this account, we gain a crucial piece of information when Garm ran through the town: “Come out! Come out! Come out! Get up! Get up! Come and see my great master! He is bold and quick. He is going to shoot a giant for trespassing. Come out!”[5]. This account gave a certain context for these words—namely, that Farmer Giles was not sure he was going out to shoot a giant. In fact, it is explicitly stated that he felt neither bold nor quick[6]. This is the sort of record that creates a dangerous situation. We are aware that the villagers knew nothing of Farmer Giles’ dumb luck. Should a villager write a chronicle of King Aegidus, it would offer a complete misinterpretation of his ascendance to political power. Yet, to the historian who has such a chronicle, alongside the story of Farmer Giles, there is a decision that needs to be made. And that decision will also have impact on future political and legal claims made revolving around the kingdom.
            Tolkien had to be aware of these sorts of issues. And it is in the tension between these decisions that he posited his work as “historical”. For instance, also found in Letter 131: “Myth and Fairy Story must, as all art, reflect and contain solution elements of moral and religious truth (or error), but not explicit, not in the known form of the primary ‘real’ world”, and, in reference to his derivation of the stories from language: This gives a certain character (a cohesion, a consistency of linguistic style, and an illusion of historicity)”[7]. I would further suggest that while Tolkien thought of his work as “historical”, that is not the same as thinking it History.
            With that distinction made, I think we are in a better place to consider the connection between Tolkien’s Secondary World, and our own Primary World. The Notion Club Papers, in my mind, are the most important link in this connection. From my understanding, the papers are discovered in 2012, and serve as an archive to connect Middle-Earth with the time the papers were written. By situating the papers as a historical object, Tolkien is making a very specific claim about history as mediator. We do not have a rumor that someone said something about Númenor—there is an explicit written reference to the episode. Further, they are accidentally discovered. Tolkien may be suggesting that there always exists a possibility of discovering such a collection of papers within the Primary World.
            This is not done because Tolkien mistook his construction as History. It is done as an integral element for Fantasy. What makes Fantasy persuasive is its ability to use rational thought to render the self-consistencies of such a world acceptable. This, Tolkien admits is much harder to do with no connection to the real world[8]. Thus, he is able to render the history of Middle-Earth legible, if it is somehow connected to us. An immediate example of this legibility is how both The Hobbit, and Lord of the Rings are referred to as translations of the Red Book of Westmarch. If we conceive of these adventures as not part of our World (and thus, not part of our History), then there is no reason why a translation of them should exist, and we might as well learn Westron or Elvish if we would like to understand Middle-Earth.
            I’ve discussed the distinction between historical and history, as well as how Tolkien sought to relate the historical to a form of history. Much like how Tolkien’s world may be historical without being history, our world can be fantastical without being fantasy. Two examples: first, the Silmarillion began with the description of a Great Music, from which we trace Creation and the Fall of Melkor[9]. This forms a soteriology by which we understand the transcendence of the good Ainur over Melkor, and how divine blessing understood being cleaved to the One, in some capacity. This soteriology of the Great Music is much like forms of founding myths in a variety of regions. I personally thought of Augustine’s discussion about the harmony of angels, but one may see parallels in Hesiod’s Theogony or the records of Indigenous conceptions of Creation.
            Second is the structure of the Line of Elros. In this document, we see specific claims about political structures, and forms of legitimacy within the brief narratives of the Kings and Queens. Such genealogies that mix the real with the mythical are also common within the Classical and Medieval traditions. Making such historical claims rendered serious political power, as a brief glance at the varying struggles over control of the Holy Roman Empire would demonstrate. These are examples that Tolkien might say are how we interact with our Primary World in a fantastical way. The past, much like Middle-Earth, is a land we cannot directly access. The role of the historian is to attempt an explanation from what is extant, but under no pretense is that the same as absolute knowledge. Our constructions, in this sense, very much parallel the work of a good Sub-creator.
            Peter Novick, in That Noble Dream stated “One approach to the idea of historical objectivity is to think of the idea as ‘myth’”[10]. I mention this because it brings to light the serious nature of the relationship between history and myth, as well as producing an alternative to what seems to be a choice between “history is myth” and “history and myth are definitively separate”. We may consider that the goal of a functional history is not to present a series of absolute claims, but rather, navigate a series of “plausible interpretations” in the words of Eugen Weber[11]. Tolkien’s intervention represents an interpretation. Whether it is plausible is another story.   

--Marley-Vincent Lindsey.

[1] Ed. Humphrey Carpenter, The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien (New York: Mariner Books, 2005), page 239.
[2] Ibid, page 145.
[3] Tolkien, J. R. R. and Tolkien, Christopher Sauron Defeated: The End of the Third Age (the History of the Lord of the Rings, Part Four) (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992) page 227.
[4] Fasolt, Constantin, The Limits of History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004) page 4.
[5] Tolkien, J.R.R. The Tolkien Reader (New York: Ballantine Books, 1978) page 133.
[6] Ibid, page 132.
[7] Carpenter, The Letters, page 143. Emphases are mine.
[8] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”, page 6.
[9] Tolkien, J.R.R. and Tolkien, Christopher, The Silmarillion (New York: Mariner Books, 2001), pages 15-18.
[10] Novick, Peter, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical
Profession. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988) page 3.
[11] Weber, Eugen. A Modern History of Europe: Men, Cultures and Societies from the Renaissance to the Present (New York: Norton & Co. Inc, 1971), page 1125.


  1. I agree whole-heartedly with Marley's take on the material but wanted to expand upon one of the ideas from his discussion of the Medieval royal geneologies, and the ways in which myth can problematize history. Marley rightly points out that fact and fiction are easily intermixed often in far more nuanced ways than appending a line of fictional kings to a geneology (see the above account of Garm as historiographer) but does not draw out the idea that these periods of "fictitious history" overlap with parallel historical account (some times knowable sometimes not). While these competing versions of history are always present, a different paradigm is introduced when fabricated accounts (rather than alternative interpretations) are introduced into historical record. This is a device that White plays with in the excerpt we read from a Once and Future King. The Arthurian Middle Ages exist side by side with the "fictional" and "imaginary" accounts of William the Conqueror and other historical figures but the Arthurian account can at times to be just as if not more true than historical facts. A similar, or at least interrelated problem, occurs as we try to connect Tolkien's timeline of Middle Earth with our own knowledge of the historical record. Does overlapping mean necessarily overwriting? Does White's Arthurian High Fantasy subsume Barbarossa, so to speak? And how should we consider "legible" history that is most effective when disconnected and unplottable on a continuous historical record?

  2. To add to what you’re saying, Tolkien also makes extensive use of different perspectives throughout his writing to build on the sense of historicity. In Letter 131, he says, “As the high Legends of the beginning are supposed to look at things through Elvish minds, so the middle tale of the Hobbit takes a virtually human point of view – and the last tale blends them” (145). The Lord of the Rings was intended to have been written by three different authors—Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam. The various poems and poetic styles connected to tales such as that of Lúthien and Beren also suggest different authors. As a result, readers are able to treat Tolkien’s work like a collection of documents written throughout the history of Arda, similarly to how historians treat documents from the history of Earth.

    -J Keener

  3. I think Jamie's point about Lord of the Rings as an archive of sort for Arda is exactly how I've always conceived of the interaction between our World and theirs. If we take this to be the case, then the last question we really need to answer in order to fully suspend disbelief is the one of transmission: how do we receive these stories? Did they just pop out of the ground? And I think how Tolkien weaves the varying possibilities of this transmission is really what seals the deal in terms of conceiving this world as real.

    In this sense, the paradigm jth explores comes into play, and while it might be tempting to dismiss the impact of such a connection, historical examples of the intersection between fabrication and reality demonstrate how effective this rendering of legibility can be. In fact, I would go so far as to say legibility is a test as to how successful the application of the paradigm became. The example that comes to my mind is the Donation of Constantine, a falsified document which granted control of the Western part of the Roman Empire to the papacy. If the pure concern we have is whether our histories are real or not, then its presentation as a forgery should have had almost revolutionary results in terms of the relationship between Rome and the papacy. This was not the case, as its power as a document came from its entrenchment in a historical narrative, and not simply its veracity.

    How certain fictions become more or less legible, I would suggest, has a lot to do with political and social power. The City of God spends multiple books focused exclusively on lining up Biblical time with Real time because Augustine needed Christian mythos to be historically legible. Arthurian timelines may be remnants from a time where they were more relevant to making specific claims. These claims need not completely overwrite older histories (we might think about kinship claims made by the Greeks of Antiquity), but they do need to comply with a conception that they were possible. And this is where I think the last question becomes most interesting: how do we intersect legibility with disconnection, and nonlinearity? (Morgane's post deals with this question of progression admirably, I might add).

    --Marley-Vincent Lindsey
    [Just purely interested in the conversation, I'm not expecting this to count for credit or anything]

  4. Dear Marley-Vincent Lindsey,

    Thanks for your erudite and careful piece. (The footnotes are a luxury.) I’ve given your post some thought and I would prefer to walk through your many points step by step but I ought to keep this brief.

    I would press you on the applicability to Tolkien of your statement “History never operates purely as an apolitical force—it comprises a form of ideology that maintains a sense of power within individuals and societies.” While Tolkien is far from silent about politics (and he did write literally on a battlefield, i.e. the Somme) it is difficult to see for what ideology for maintaining or building power relations he could have been writing. Are there not two different senses of the word between Tolkien’s ‘history’ and the post-structuralists’?

    Secondly. I am very intriqued by your distinction between ‘history’ and the ‘historical,’ which seems to be at the heart of your thought here. But what is the substance of this distinction? I see the distinction stated but never ‘made’ or explained.

    (Finally, your very formal style exhibits your wide-reading and analytic mind, but I wonder if it is not too austere for a blog post. This would work well with research papers, no doubt, but I also worry that the theory-prose might exclude more readers than enlighten them. I would be happy to chat more about this.)

  5. “Thus, he is able to render the history of Middle-Earth legible, if it is somehow connected to us.”
    This point has been troubling me throughout the course of this class. We’ve established that Tolkien’s efforts to create an internally coherent secondary reality are entirely successful- the languages and nomenclature are not chosen to allude to things in our primary reality, but develop according to middle earth’s history and the movement and growth of its peoples; the world of middle earth comes complete with its own lays and myths and poems. It seems to me that it can stand on its own merits; yet it was important for Tolkien that his fantasy be clearly linked to our contemporary history (or just to Earth, rather than Arda). He forges this link laboriously, but effectively, in the Notion Club Papers by giving his characters in 1987 flashes of Numenorian memories. I understand this is part of his overall project: to create an historical period in our real world, but I wonder if this rule applies to all attempts to create fantasy? Must there always been a clearly articulated link between primary and secondary realities, or is this Tolkien-specific? I am personally inclined to believe that his story would be legible to us even if Lowdham had never recorded Avallonian or Adunaic.

  6. I've wondered the same thing and I think the answer really depends on what said fantasy tries to achieve. For Tolkien, his connection to the Primary World is necessary to make it a part of English mythos, but, as mcs points out, such a story still holds power without the connection. I would hesitate to call such a story legible, as I think part of the legibility process includes some small possibility of the story being real.

    It's also interesting (to me at least) to think about how many worlds of fantasy and sci-fi have these sorts of connections. Harry Potter, for example, is super easy to rationalize as a real entity--anecdotally I was stunned when I didn't receive a letter by owl on my 11th birthday. My favorite example is Star Wars: R2D2, the adorable blue astromech who seems to always be around from the Prequels to the Return of the Jedi, never had its memory erased. Throughout the Extended Universe, it finds itself with all sorts of records of the New Jedi Order and the Yuuzhan Vong War. However implausible, maybe R2D2 is the archive from which Lucas gained knowledge of this old world (he's even admitted R2D2 as his favorite character!).

    Also, I hope people don't feel excluded--this has just tended to be my style in academic and non-academic writings thus far. If there are any questions/things I can clarify please let me know!